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Why you shouldn’t censor your teen’s reading (even the sex and violence)

(Yifan Wu for The Washington Post)

Last month, a Missouri lawmaker proposed legislation that would allow a group of parents to determine what books public libraries could carry for young people, and that would potentially jail librarians who violate the law.

Attempts to censor teen reading in schools and libraries are not at all uncommon. Although I am no fan of those policies, I recently caught myself censoring my own 13-year-old daughter, who has discovered John Green. First, there was "The Fault in Our Stars," followed by "Paper Towns" and "Turtles All the Way Down." Then she wanted to read "Looking for Alaska," a highly regarded young adult novel that includes sex scenes I had heard were a little less "fade to black" than those in Green's other books. I have always encouraged her to read anything she feels ready for, but this time I told her that she could dive in only if she was willing to talk with me about the book's mature themes and scenes while I read along. She opted out.

Or maybe she secretly inhaled a copy of "Looking for Alaska." I remember being a young teen, skulking in my sister's walk-in closet and reading Judy Blume's "Forever . . ." and "Tiger Eyes," thinking I wasn't supposed to read them but doing so anyway. I definitely didn't ask permission.

Although I don't feel damaged or even very affected by my first literary glimpse of teen sex, I do wonder if there is a right age for some material. Should 12-year-olds, for example, get to read Stephen King's "It" just because they want to? How concerned should parents be about their high school freshman reading a book about teen suicide, such as "Thirteen Reasons Why"

The long-term nature of reading means that studies on how content affects teens (or anyone else) are scarce, but Stetson University psychologist Christopher Ferguson says research does suggest that we can chill out when it comes to what our kids are reading.

If a kid wants to read, he says, "it's so remarkable that you don't want to be a roadblock." He adds: "People's fear of fictional media is greater than the actual threat, and parents often worry that kids will read and imitate, but I don't think there is any good evidence for that." In other words, reading "Divergent" is not going to cause violent behavior, and reading "Twilight" is not going to make someone have sex with a vampire.

Ferguson's point carries over into other media, as evidenced by the recently debunked hoopla about the Netflix adaptation of "Thirteen Reasons Why." Following its release in 2017, the series was blamed for an increase in suicide among U.S. teens. Just last month, however, the Annenberg Public Policy Center released a reanalysis, finding that "after controlling for the dramatic increase in adolescent suicide in recent years, the show's release had no clear effect." A rising teen suicide rate is cause for concern, but maybe we would do better to examine and address real-world causes rather than fictional ones.

I don’t censor the books my children read. I think they’ll be stronger for it.

Ferguson's small study of teens in one Texas city looked at whether reading banned books was associated with behavioral problems in adolescents. The answer in that group was no, with the exception of a small subset of kids — mostly girls — who may have been struggling already. "Some kids who already have mental health issues may be particularly drawn to certain kinds of edgy books," he says. He advises parents to check in with their teens to determine whether they're depressed or anxious and to ask why they're drawn to the books they're reading. In such cases, he says it's likely that "the problem is not the book, but something preexisting."

Brigham Young University researcher Sarah Coyne conducted a study on profanity in teen literature and found that the characters doing most of the swearing were "popular." Although that is potentially problematic because some kids are more likely to emulate characters they look up to, she says, media's influence is nuanced. "Our research found that reading certain things does influence behavior," but "you bring your personality to the situation." So, "if you're already a hostile or violent kid, the short-term effect may be to act out later."

It can be hard to know exactly what teens are ready to read and how much to try to control their choices. Lisa Von Drasek, curator of the University of Minnesota Children's Literature Research Collections, says that although there are no flashing signs of maturity to watch out for, simply paying attention to our kids may be enough. "Think about who your child is in the world before you think about the books you don't want to hand them. Knowing the child is way more important than knowing the book," she says.

And Ferguson says it's important to note that being interested in violence and sex is normal for teens. "You really can't stop them from being interested in it and accessing material related to it, so it's better to turn it into a positive by talking to them about your concerns and getting your own viewpoint out there."

Virginia Shurgar Hassell, a parent to three kids ages 12 to 16 in Dripping Springs, Tex., takes that approach. She says she has only once questioned her kids' book selections, when her middle-school-aged daughter's book club chose "The Hunger Games" even though several moms and some kids voted it down. "Many of the girls self-censored, but in the end they all read it. I finally read it myself and thought it was gross and simplistic, but there is a huge genre of dystopian, dead-parent books" that she finds boring but that many kids love. So far, Shurgar Hassell has not discerned any ill effects from her daughter's fascination with post-apocalyptic, parent-free worlds.

On the other end of the spectrum, Austin mom Monica Maldonado Williams says that when her son hit sixth grade, he turned almost exclusively to nonfiction — mostly books about aquarium fish — because so many stories with a male protagonist were too violent for him. Now that he's in high school, she says, "he's ready for PG-13 adult books, but in middle school I thought he'd stop reading for fun altogether."

According to Nora Pelizzari, director of communications at the National Coalition Against Censorship, many kids can and do self-censor.

"Often this is a specific scene or use of language that confuses or upsets them, and they bring the book to their parents," she says. Although she views such an instance as an entry point "into the kinds of conversations that can be difficult to have with our kids," it becomes problematic when that "personal discomfort turns into an attempt to censor what others have access to read, view and think."

Whether teens go for aquarium knowledge, sick kids in love or alternate realities, though, there are many benefits that stem from letting them select their own recreational reading material.

Liz Hartnett, program coordinator at the University of South Carolina's Center for Community Literacy, says kids who are allowed to choose tend to read more for pleasure, and kids who read for fun fare better in many ways. When kids exercise their reading muscles regularly, they have better reading comprehension and a better vocabulary, which in turn helps them become more confident readers and develop stamina to focus longer. That contributes to their ability to understand issues that they observe in the real world and can lead to greater academic success overall.

Why your kid should read banned books

Unfortunately, Hartnett says there's a sharp drop in recreational reading around fourth grade and after, because that's when kids start to be assigned more reading that feels less like fun and more like a chore.

If you want to foster a love of reading in your child, one of the worst things you can do is steer them away from what they want to read and toward things they aren't interested in. If you do that, says Justin Azevedo, youth materials selector at the Sacramento Public Library and co-chair of the American Library Association's Intellectual Freedom Committee, "they grow up thinking they don't like to read."

Censoring a child's reading material is a tricky business anyway, not only because it squashes the fun factor, Azevedo says, but also because deciding something is "inappropriate" may fail to account for what a child stands to gain from a particular book. "Reading is a safe place to experience things ­secondhand" and may even make teens better equipped to handle something if and when it does happen, he says. It might also reflect a very personal experience a young reader can relate to directly. "I want every kid to see themselves in a book, and by taking a reductive view of a certain story, you are diminishing their lived experience."

Azevedo says that, as an added bonus, kids may develop empathy by reading something a parent feels is too dark or advanced. "For some kids, that's their daily reality, and it can give other kids a window into the lives of their friends."

He also says, however, that there is a line to be walked. Ideally, a strong parent-child relationship can help steer teens as they select reading material. For example, although he read "It" as an 11-year-old, he says his own violence-averse tween would probably not enjoy it. "Though it was 100 percent not appropriate, if my son asked if he could read 'It,' I would say yes with the caveat that I'm going to know what's coming and check in with him a lot," he says. The key, he says, is to "tell the truth when you're having those conversations, so they'll trust you to guide them."

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